When the Motion Picture Production Code reigned over Hollywood from 1934 to 1968, most major studios either did not have any outwardly queer representation, or had to code them. In European cinema, representation was a little better, and while before the code was enforced, representation in American cinema was not prominent, although it was there. In that spirit, here are a few groundbreaking pieces of queer cinema from early European, pre-code American, and the silent era of film, because we’ve always been here and we’ve always been queer.
Making a Man of Her, 1912 (dir. Al Christie)
One trope that was incredibly prominent in early cinema was crossdressing for comedic effect. In this delightful short a woman dresses as a man to get a job on a ranch, only to have all the women around them fall in love with “him.”
A Florida Enchantment, 1914 (dir. Sidney Drew)
Based on a novel from 1891, a woman visits Florida where she buys some magic seeds that can turn a man into a woman and vice versa. After an argument with her fiancé, she takes the seeds and wakes up the next day a man. Throughout the film, the characters’ attractions are fluid, making this one of the earliest films to feature lesbian, gay, bisexual/pansexual, and transgender themes. This film has it all!
Judith of Bethulia, 1914 (dir. D. W. Griffith)
Based on the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, historian Susan Stryker made the case for the film’s transness in the documentary Disclosure.
The Danger Girl, 1916 (dir. Clarence G. Badger)
Gloria Swanson disguises herself as a man in order to prove to her brother and his friends that they are being taken in by a vamp. Swanson looks dapper AF in a tuxedo throughout the film.
Anders als die Andern (Different From The Others), 1918 (dir. Richard Oswald)
Produced during the Weimar Republic era in Germany, this film stars Conrad Veidt as a violinist who falls in love with one of his students. The film was made in response to Germany’s then law against homosexuality. It’s considered the first pro-gay film ever made.
Good Night, Nurse!, 1918 (dir. Roscoe Arbuckle)
Arbuckle had previously cross-dressed as a girl in his film The Butcher Boy in order to infiltrate his fiancée’s dormitory, fooling a great number of people. In Good Night, Nurse! he takes it one step further, dressing as a nurse in order to escape a hospital. During his flight he shares an incredibly flirtatious moment with Buster Keaton that makes you wish these two would just get together already!
Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to Be a Man), 1918 (dir. Ernst Lubitsch)
Ossi Oswalda plays Ossi, an incredibly butch young woman who vexes her uncle with her smoking and poker playing. Eventually she disguises herself as a man in order to have more freedom in the world. Things get spicy when she meets a handsome doctor and the two fall for each other, with Ossi still disguised as a man!
Salome, 1923 (dir. Charles Bryant & Alla Nazimova)
Cited as one of the first art films ever made in the United States, this decadent take on the Oscar Wilde’s play is lush and flamboyant and is about as queer as you can get. Kenneth Anger claimed on his book Hollywood Babylon that the entire cast was made of queer actors, and while that’s impossible to prove now, it’s a nice thought.
Grandpa’s Girl, 1924 (dir. Gilbert Pratt)
While on a trip to Europe, Jean’s (Kathleen Clifford) grandfather disinherits her after discovering her expulsion from college. When he starts advertising for a new grandson, Jean disguises herself as a boy and applies for the job. Of course, chaos ensues when she falls for another of the applicants.
Michael, 1924 (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Based on Herman Bang’s 1902 novel, which was previously adapted in 1916 under the title The Wings, the film follows a painter who falls in love with one of his male models, the titular Michael. It explores the bittersweet feeling of unrequited love in a tender, melancholic manner.
What’s the World Coming to?, 1926 (dir. Richard Wallace)
Mixing queer themes with sci-fi, this film is set in the world of 2026 where women run society and men are the “weaker” sex. It takes cross-dressing to the extreme with women in suits and cropped hair, with men sporting more traditionally “feminine” flowy garb. The women are styled after prominent lesbians of the time like Radclyffe Hall and Jane Heap. While it doesn’t all stick the landing today, it remains a sharp satire about gender norms.
The Clinging Vine, 1926 (dir. Paul Slone)
Another social satire, this film stars Leatrice Joy as a hardened businesswoman who goes by the initials A.B. When she overhears someone calling her an “Amazon” because of her butch ways, she agrees to a more “feminine” makeover. In the end she learns that no matter how she looks she’s still the smartest person in any room.
She’s A Prince, 1926 (dir. Marcel Perez)
Starring comedienne Alice Ardell, whose persona included wearing traditionally masculine garb, who finds herself initiated into a secret flapper society full of bizarre rituals. This zany film again features cross-dressing, including men wearing girdles and donning lipstick.
The Crystal Cup, 1927 (dir. John Francis Dillon)
Based on a novel by Gertrude Atherton, Dorothy Mackaill as Gita, a butch man-hating woman who dresses in a masculine way to ward off their advances. She finds herself entwined with them despite this. According to Girls Will Be Boys author Laura Horak, critics at the time cited Mackaill’s costumes as one of the growing signs of sexual perversity in cinema.
Wings, 1927 (dir. William A. Wellman)
The first Best Picture Oscar winner, Wings is full of queer undertones. There are lesbians in a famous tracking shot (with one of them again styled to look like Radclyffe Hall). Clara Bow’s ambulance driver is incredibly butch in her uniform and lace-up boots. Lastly, pals Jack (Charles Rogers) and Richard (David Armstrong) share a passionate kiss as one dies in battle.
Sex in Chains, 1928 (dir. William Dieterle)
After accidentally killing a man who was accosting his wife, Franz Sommer (Dieterle) is sentenced to three years in prison. There his sexual frustration manifests in the making of nude statues out of breadcrumbs, but also some homoerotic tension with fellow inmate Alfred Marquis. When the two are released, the possibility of blackmail looms.
Pandora’s Box, 1929 (dir. G. W. Pabst)
In this Weimar Era classic, Louise Brooks stars as Lulu, a vicarious young woman who finds herself in a love triangle between a father and son. On top of that, she’s attracted to the tuxedo-wearing Countess Augusta Geschwitz. In real life, Brooks had many friendships with lesbian and bisexual women, and according to Andrea Weiss in her book Vampires & Violets, Brooks even claimed to have a one-night stand with Greta Garbo.
The Blood of a Poet, 1930 (dir. Jean Cocteau)
The first part of The Orphic Trilogy, this avant-garde film from surrealist Cocteau uses dreamlike visuals and narration to explore an artist’s obsession with fame and death. The Poet (Enrique Riveros) goes on a surreal journey, literally passing through a mirror and witnessing oneiric sights of an extremely queer nature.
Morocco, 1930 (dir. Josef von Sternberg)
Marlene Dietrich received her only Oscar nomination for her performance in this desert-set romance. While the main relationship between Deitrich’s night club singer and Gary Cooper’s legionnaires is heterosexual, the film is chock full of queer undertones, from Dietrich’s tuxedo, to her musical performance which ends in a kiss on the lips of a female patron. And a thousand drag cabaret acts were born.
Mädchen in Uniform, 1931 (dir. Leontine Sagan)
One of the earliest films to feature an all-female cast, this German film is set in a boarding school and follows a 14 year-old-girl who falls passionately in love with one of her teachers. Banned by the Nazis for being too decadent, many of the film’s Jewish stars and crew were forced to flee Germany soon after it was banned. The film’s frank depiction of lesbianism allegedly inspired the novel Olivia by Dorothy Bussy. The book was later adapted into a 1951 French film of the same name directed by Jacqueline Audry.
Viktor und Viktoria, 1933 (dir. Reinhold Schünzel)
The basis for the 1982 Blake Edwards comedy Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews, this earlier version stars Renate Müller as a desperate woman who masquerades as a female impersonator in order to find work in a cabaret. The story is so well loved it has been remade five times!
Queen Christina, 1933 (dir. Rouben Mamoulian)
A biography of noted bisexual Queen Christina of Sweden played by noted bisexual queen Greta Garbo? Yes, please. This film has everything you’d want a period piece about a bisexual woman to have. Garbo wears both masculine and feminine clothing in equal measure. She kisses her dear “friend” Ebba (Elizabeth Young) on the mouth multiple times, but also seduces John Gilbert! As with many a bisexual will understand, the film ends utter disappointment, with Christina having chosen her duties to her country over her lovers. But oh that closing shot. Goals indeed.
Christopher Strong, 1933 (dir. Dorothy Arzner)
Director Dorothy Arzner was not only the only woman working within the studio system at the time, but was also a lesbian. This film stars Katharine Hepburn in only her second film role. While she does fall for a man in this, she also dresses up as a giant silver bug costume and flies an airplane into the sun. Dramatic. Hepburn herself was a trailblazer of butchness, and brought that to her post-code film Sylvia Scarlet, in which she successfully impersonates a man for most of the film.
For more reading on early queer cinema, I recommend Hollywood Androgyny by Rebecca Bell-Metereau, Girls Will Be Boys by Laura Horak, Screened Out by Richard Barrios, and The Celluliod Closet by Vito Russo.